Tag Archives: legislation

The Bully Pulpit

I recently attended the bat mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter at the synagogue in which I grew up.  My cousin’s daughter did a great job with her Torah portion, but I was particularly struck by the sermon, in which Rabbi Dennis Sasso forcefully and eloquently connected those ancient teachings to America’s contemporary challenges.

I sometimes need to remind myself that for every judgmental scold or religious con-man, there is a religious leader like Rabbi Sasso wrestling with the nature of human community and authentic moral behavior.

He was kind enough to share a copy of his remarks.

 Judaism is not just a set of general principles or lofty ideals. It is the living out of those values in the here and now, in the everyday of human encounter between a person and his/her neighbor, a man and woman, parents and children, elected officials and the people, nation and nation.

And so, in this week’s Torah portion, entitled Mishpatim (“Ordinances”), we have the fleshing out of the Ten Commandments. We find here the beginnings of a constitutional biblical tradition, upon which future post-biblical (rabbinic) legislation will evolve, not just as a faith tradition but as a religion of ethical nationhood.

The Rabbi noted that the book of Exodus contains many laws that mirror those of our civil state, including, most significantly, “laws forbidding the oppression of the powerless, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger — the disenfranchised members of society.”

The commandment to “love your neighbor” occurs in Leviticus 19. However, the commandment to “love the stranger,” the foreigner, the immigrant, (a much more difficult task) – occurs here twice and 36 times in the Torah (“Love the stranger…” “for you know the heart of the stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt”).

The heart of the sermon–at least to me–was the explicit application of Jewish teaching to matters pending at the Indiana legislature.

Reading through this week’s portion we can find guidance regarding many bills currently before our State and Federal Legislatures.

There is SB 439 – regarding Hate Crime Laws – likely not to pass in Indiana because of the pressure of conservative forces that feign to promote themselves as religious.      Well, they are quite out of sync with the biblical heritage they purport to uphold – a heritage that teaches – “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart.”

The growing vitriol expressed in words and acts of anti-Semitism, Islamphobia and other ethnic and gender directed prejudice speak of an epidemic of hate that must be contained. We should be alarmed by what is happening to words in our times – particularly in the political and religious arenas. Language has become shrill, offensive and misleading. Words, angry and hostile weapons.

Then there are legislative initiatives to curtail rights for LGBTQ+ citizens and to impose doctrinal understandings of reproductive health and abortion rights. Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion contains the key passage that defines miscarriage and abortion not as murder, but as a civil matter (Ex. 21:22-24).

Abortion is a painful and serious decision to be made by a woman in consultation with her physician, loved ones and in keeping with her religious values. In the Jewish legal and moral tradition, termination of pregnancy is never defined as homicide, and it is not only permissible, but required to protect the life and health of the mother, in some cases even her mental health. In Jewish law, the fetus is not defined as a “person,” with independent legal and moral status, until the moment of delivery. Judaism does not share the view that human life begins at conception. Throughout pregnancy the fetus is potential life, to be honored and protected, but dependent on and subordinate to the life of the mother.

To impose particular doctrinal restrictions on abortion constitutes not only a violation of privacy and civil rights, but a limitation of religious rights, by imposing beliefs and values that counter the faith traditions of others. And certainly to muddle legislation with unscientific and potentially injurious information is a pious fraud.

Consider the higher health risks for women and infants that proposed legislation – which includes threats to cut funds for Planned Parenthood – would involve. Our state’s infant mortality rate, already among the highest in the country, would rise dramatically.

Ironically, some of the same groups that counter hate crime laws, and advance restrictions on health care and civil rights, piously advocate for prayer in public schools and, paradoxically, promote liberalization of gun laws – guns that can kill in schools, domestic settings and hateful social encounters…

Today, our nation struggles with the issue of immigration, our response and responsibilities to the stranger in our midst. Our deepest Jewish convictions tell us that protecting the humanity of immigrants, who have come to the United States to better lives for themselves and their children, puts our communities on a path towards strengthening families and society and ultimately, the moral values of our nation. By all means, we need to ensure the safety of the homeland, and guard the security of our borders, but not in ways that discriminate, intimidate and create a siege mentality and police state.

Keeping families together, allowing immigrants to fully contribute to our communities, providing relief for millions of aspiring Americans from unnecessary deportation and family separation, these are at the heart of the Jewish legislative and moral traditions. It is also the best of the American tradition which we as Jews have helped to shape and from which we have benefited.

The Rabbi closed with this profound and increasingly relevant quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; … its message becomes meaningless.

Words applicable to both religion and political ideology–and definitely worth pondering.

 

 

There’s Talking and Then There’s Doing….

Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall makes a really important point. In a post reflecting on the various reasons that the rollout of the proposed healthcare overhaul has been going so badly, he points to the important role of a President in the passage of complex or controversial legislation.

True, the health-care bill has numerous glaring defects. As Marshall also points out, the defects should have been expected, since the GOP has been promising to do something that is basically impossible–continuing to cover people while offering more carrots and employing fewer sticks.

Even though Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Presidency, the bill faces formidable obstacles. Major stakeholders hate it,  Republican lawmakers are divided, and the bill won’t get a single Democratic vote. Faced with significant opposition, what is needed is what Marshall calls “the mix of formal and informal powers, favors and threats, public presence, the ability to protect or punish” that only a President can bring to bear.

This is something President Trump has shown virtually no interest in doing. We’re at roughly a month and a half into the administration. The GOP has unified control of the government and yet no significant legislation has moved at all. That is a stunning reality which the storm and chaos of Trump’s short presidency has largely obscured. But it is an almost unprecedented development. Some of this may be an inherent limitation because the President came into office as a minority President. But as I argued a month ago, the President simply has no appetite for the hard work of passing laws. He has defaulted to rolling out executive order after executive order, in most cases Potemkin decrees with vaguely legalistic language and limited actual impact. Like so much with Trump, it’s a mix of authoritarianism on the one hand and impatience and flimflam on the other. The upshot isn’t so much a poor man’s as a lazy man’s authoritarianism.

I think it is deeper than Trump’s obvious aversion to actual work. It is equally obvious that he has not the faintest understanding of how government actually works–and even less interest in learning what he doesn’t know. He is used to running a family business where he issued orders and people who were related to him and dependent upon his largesse obediently followed them. He wasn’t even the typical CEO of a publicly-traded company who would at least have to answer to a Board of Directors and shareholders.

A diligent and intellectually curious person with Trump’s background would be disadvantaged by that lack of relevant experience.  Trump is neither diligent nor intellectually curious (judging from his vocabulary and spelling of his tweets, he isn’t even very bright). Several of the skills that Marshall identifies as critical to the passage of legislation are simply beyond his capacity to acquire or exercise, and his self-obsession  precludes any engagement in the sorts of “schmoozing” required to cajole recalcitrant lawmakers. (It is impossible to imagine Trump strategically stroking the egos of crucial legislators.)

Ironically, the very traits that make Trump so manifestly unqualified for the Presidency  may end up saving healthcare….

Fingers crossed.

It’s Complicated, and We’re Scientifically Illiterate

The Washington Post recently reported on correspondence raising an issue that members of the U.S. Senate should respect, but probably won’t.

A letter was sent by ecologists and climate scientists and was endorsed by 65 other researchers, including a number of leaders of forest science, and by several scientific societies, and pointed out that pending bipartisan (!) energy legislation includes claims that burning trees for energy is carbon neutral–a claim that is scientifically incorrect.

“Legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect,” say the researchers, led by Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center. “We urge you and other members of the Senate to reconsider this well-intentioned legislation and eliminate the misrepresentation that forest bioenergy is carbon-neutral.”

The amendment in question was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; it has seven cosponsors and urges leaders of the federal government to act in ways that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”

Shortly after its passage, a press release by Collins hailed the amendment, which, she said, would “help ensure that federal policies for the use of renewable biomass are clear, simple, and reflect the importance of biomass for our energy future.” The release noted the support of groups including the American Forest and Paper Association and the American Wood Council.

The argument for carbon neutrality–which sounds reasonable–is that, although burning trees emit carbon, trees grow back and when they do, they sequester carbon, making the process neutral.

A key problem, say the scientists, is that it takes a long time for trees to grow back after they’re cut down — and a lot can happen in that span of time.

Here’s the real issue: We elect lawmakers to make policy determinations—determinations that inevitably involve tradeoffs. Those tradeoffs may prove to have been unwise, or based upon faulty information, but that’s the nature of the job.

We don’t, however, elect people to legislate scientific fact. (Indiana’s legislature is still the butt of jokes from a century-old effort to change the value of pi.) It may seem like a picky quibble when Congress is doing so much other damage (Yuuge damage), but when lawmakers triumphantly “demonstrate” the falsity of climate change by throwing  snowballs in the Senate chambers, it’s important.

There is a difference between language claiming that a policy choice is being made based upon scientific consensus, or upon careful consideration of contending scientific opinions, and language that characterizes a conclusion as scientific “fact” And it’s an important difference.

In an era where presidential candidates routinely make colossally untrue statements, when Indiana’s governor can tamper with an “independent” report in order to reflect more desirable “factual” findings, when Michigan’s governor can tell Flint’s citizens that he can assess water quality, you might argue that the mere existence of a bipartisan bill recognizing the importance of cutting carbon emissions should be considered a huge win. I get that.

But I think the real lesson is that respecting the distinction between fact and opinion is for that very reason more important than ever.

 

And the Beat-em-up Goes On….

What is it with the homophobia?

It’s one thing to believe–based upon a (highly selective) version of the bible–that gay people are immoral. You want to think that, fine. It’s a free country. As I used to say, if you don’t like gay folks, don’t invite any of them to dinner.  Your loss.

Of course, most of these religious warriors aren’t “live and let live” people. So we have weird efforts to hurt the GLBT community by passing legislation that would deny them an equal opportunity to participate in the state specialty license plate program. We are treated to the seriously hateful spectacle of legislators refusing to pass an anti-bullying bill because it might protect gay children.

And now, there seems to be a movement to roll back human rights ordinances around the country.

I find it impossible to understand the animus felt by these people. I do understand not liking someone. I understand disapproving of the policies or tactics of a group of people. I even understand that people who are uncertain of their own sexuality, or unable to deal with social changes, may feel threatened by the emergence of gays from the closet. But for the life of me, I don’t understand people who seem motivated solely by the desire to make the lives of others miserable.

On the other hand, considering just how much time and effort these “Christians” are spending on their campaign to marginalize and demean gay people, maybe they don’t have lives of their own.

THIS is what drives me crazy…

I’m linking to Political Animal for this discussion of David Vitter’s distortions of the pending cap and trade legislation, but not for the particulars of that legislative battle.

This sort of situation–where someone who opposes a proposal totally mischaracterizes it–has become endemic, and the media watchdogs who are supposed to tell us who’s lying aren’t doing so, for a variety of reasons.

I have a short fuse anyway–just ask my husband–and the routine use of outright lies and fabrications in policy debates is driving me up the proverbial wall!